The student debt “crisis” from one student’s perspective
Everywhere I go, it seems student debt is all the rage to yell about. And oh, do students yell about it.
What do they yell about? How more students than ever before will graduate with debt, how the debt — in dollars — is more per individual student than we could have ever imagined, and how questionable loaning practices, unaggressive legislation and sketchy individuals brought this horrible situation to be.
Somehow, it never seems to come back to the actions of the individual. Higher education, unlike K-12, is not mandatory. No one forces a high school senior to take out huge loans to attend a college they can’t afford. So why do we act as if the “student debt crisis” is part of the recession our country has suffered for the past several years? Perhaps the recession aggravated certain factors, but the economy isn’t entirely at fault. It’s the student’s choice.
My mother is a nurse practitioner (NP). She also teaches nursing. She has discussed the very real and scary prospect of paying off student debt with her nursing students, a group drastically mixed in age and socio-economic status, pursuing either second bachelor’s degrees in nursing or advanced degrees in specialized areas of nursing. When she graduated with her her bachelor’s in nursing in the 1970s, the amount of student debt she owed was just about the same as the salary for an entry-level job as a registered nurse (RN), meaning a nurse without any advanced degrees. Today, in the year 2013, both numbers are obviously higher, but once again, nearly the same. The average annual wage for a RN is $69,100, which does not look shabby at all to a new graduate.
If her students can get a job once they graduate — and since there is constantly a shortage of nurses, they probably will — they will make just about the dollar amount of their debt in their first year out in the real world. Of course, they will have living expenses, so not all of their money can immediately go to that cause. But it’s not an unbearable amount, and, at least in this career field — and with over two and a half million registered nurses employed in the U.S., according to the Bureau of Labor’s most recent data from May 2011, that’s not a small field — taking on student debt seems to be worth it, a fair investment. Of course, nursing, at the level of an RN, is a reliable, steady form of employment that does not require an incredibly long time in educational institutions.
Compare, for example, a lawyer or a doctor. Just to compete at entry-level, a lawyer requires at least six years of schooling and a doctor at least seven. It’s reported that 36 percent of law students and 49 percent of medical students graduate with six-figure debt. But assuming they get a job, which is admittedly less reliable in these fields than nursing, the road ahead looks pretty smooth. The average annual wage for the lawyers employed in the United States at the time of the Bureau of Labor’s survey was $130,490. For 50 percent more time spent in institutions of higher learning, lawyers make almost double the money. And it gets even better for doctors. Not even considering specialists or surgeons who will receive higher salaries, family practitioners make, on average, about $177,330 a year. That’s significantly more than double what nurses make for not even twice the amount of years spent in education.
And it’s worth looking at how many there are of each of these groups. Remember the registered nurses, a presence of over two and a half million in the United States? (And that’s not even counting nurse practitioners or any of the other careers in nursing that result from earning degrees.) According to the Bureau’s May 2011 survey, there were nearly 600,00 lawyers and about 100,000 family practitioners. Compared to over two and a half million registered nurses, and especially in a country of 315 million and growing, the numbers of lawyers and family practitioners seems tiny. Those two fields, due to all the prestige and money and years of stressful studying, are competitive, and accordingly, small. At least in our modern capitalist society, the debt incurred by the future lawyers, doctors, and even nurses of the United States is, for them, “worth it.”
So where does all the panic come from? All the angry editorials, pie charts with large percentages, posters in protest at Occupy Wall Street?
Most likely, from the liberal arts students. Since some of us came to college to study something we enjoy, rather than pursue a career path, our path once we graduate can be a bit bumpy. We don’t slide right into another level of higher education or job in the field of our choosing. In that sense, some of us may not have as much confidence in paying back our student debt. While we are in college, expanding our minds through the humanities, student debt seems far off and futuristic. However, when we graduate and the grace period for interest on our loans ends, the panic sets in and we wonder if all this student debt was worth the hours of arguing theory in classrooms in Friends Hall.
If what you want out of your educational experience is a job, pursue a field that pays well, soon after graduation. If you want to study a field that interests you, even if it may not automatically lead to a job following graduation, go for it. It’s your choice. Decide what you want out of your college education, whether it’s a career or a passion or both, and stick with it. The truth is, you will have student debt either way.
Lucy Walker is a junior drama major who realizes this article may make some readers nervous about their future life plans. Email her at lwalker2[at]ithaca[dot]edu.